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  • A Modest Proposal 125

    LITERARY FOCUS: VERBAL IRONY You use verbal irony whenever you say one thing but mean something

    completely different. When you speak, your tone of voice signals listeners

    that you don’t really mean what you are saying. Writers don’t have the

    option of using a sarcastic tone of voice to convey irony. Instead, they might

    make so many shocking or unbelievable statements that the reader can’t

    possibly miss the point. Swift’s essay is a classic example of verbal irony

    taken to the extreme.

    Isn’t It Ironic? Look at the following examples of verbal irony. Then, create your own example in the space provided.

    READING SKILLS: RECOGNIZING PERSUASIVE TECHNIQUES “A Modest Proposal” is a type of persuasive writing called satire. Through

    satire, writers ridicule people or institutions in order to effect change. “A

    Modest Proposal” was written in 1729 to shock English society into an

    awareness of England’s unjust policies toward the Irish. In it, Swift uses the

    types of persuasive techniques listed below to convince the reader that

    England’s treatment of the Irish is heartless and immoral.

    • Logical appeals: the use of facts or statistics to support a position.

    • Emotional appeals: the use of words that stir up strong feelings.

    • Ethical appeals: the use of details that will convince readers that the

    writer is fair and trustworthy.

    Use the Skill As you read the selection, highlight and identify the types of persuasive appeals used by Swift. Refer to the list above as a guide.

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    A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

    Literary Skills Understand verbal irony.

    Reading Skills Recognize persuasive techniques (logical, emotional, and ethical appeals).

    You trip and fall in front of a large “Aren’t I the picture of grace?”

    group of people, your books and you ask as you struggle to your

    papers flying everywhere. feet.

    You have a bad case of the flu. A You respond, “Never felt better!”

    friend visits and asks, “How are


    Situation Verbal Irony (What You Say)

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    It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great

    town,1 or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the

    roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex,

    followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and impor-

    tuning every passenger for an alms.2 These mothers, instead of

    being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to

    employ all their time in strolling, to beg sustenance for their

    helpless infants, who, as they grow up either turn thieves for

    want3 of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the

    Pretender4 in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.510

    Jonathan Swift



    BACKGROUND In the late 1720s, Ireland suffered from several years of poor harvests. Farmers had trouble paying the rents demanded by their English land- lords. Many children and adults were forced to beg or starve. Most of the money collected by the landlords was sent to England; very little was spent in Ireland on locally produced goods.

    Here, Swift pretends to be an economic planner who suggests a shocking solution to the problem. Watch for the sharp contrast between Swift’s direct, logical style and the outrageous proposal he describes.

    1. this great town: Dublin. 2. importuning . . . alms: asking passersby for a handout. 3. want n.: lack; need. 4. the Pretender: James Edward (1688–1766), son of England’s last

    Catholic king, the deposed James II (1633–1701); James Edward kept trying to gain the English throne.

    5. sell . . . Barbadoes: go to the West Indies and work as indentured servants.

    Melancholy, in line 1, means “sad.” Using that knowledge, paraphrase the first sentence.

    sustenance (sus√t¥·n¥ns) n.: food or money to support life.

    126 Collection 4: The Restoration and the Eighteenth CenturyPart 1

  • I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number

    of children, in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their

    mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present

    deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance;

    and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy

    method of making these children sound and useful members

    of the commonwealth would deserve so well of the public, as

    to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

    But my intention is very far from being confined to provide

    only for the children of professed beggars; it is of a much greater

    extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain

    age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support

    them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.

    As to my own part, having turned my thoughts, for many

    years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the

    several schemes of other projectors,6 I have always found them

    grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true a child, just

    dropped from its dam,7 may be supported by her milk, for a

    solar year8 with little other nourishment, at most not above the

    value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or

    the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging, and it

    is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them, in

    such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents,

    or the parish, or wanting food and raiment9 for the rest of their

    lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding and

    partly to the clothing of many thousands.

    There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme,

    that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid

    practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too

    frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt,10




    A Modest Proposal 127

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    6. projectors n. pl.: speculators; schemers. 7. dam n.: mother (ordinarily used only of animals). 8. solar year: from the first day of spring in one year to the last day

    of winter in the next. 9. raiment (r†√m¥nt) n.: clothing.

    10. doubt v.: suspect.

    The word prodigious (pr£·dij√¥s), in line 11, means “an enormous quantity.”

    Pause at line 18. What does Swift say is the problem facing the nation?

    The word dam (line 28) means “female parent” and is usually used to refer to a domestic animal. What attitude toward poor women does this word choice suggest?

    Pause at line 36. At what age can children be made useful to society? Circle that infor- mation. Underline the way in which they can be of use.

  • more to avoid the expense, than the shame, which would move

    tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

    The number of souls11 in Ireland being usually reckoned one

    million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two

    hundred thousand couples whose wives are breeders, from which

    number I subtract thirty thousand couples, who are able to

    maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot

    be so many under the present distresses of the kingdom, but this

    being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand

    breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who

    miscarry, or whose children die by accident, or disease within

    the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand

    children of poor parents annually born: The question therefore

    is, how this number shall be reared, and provided for, which, as

    I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is

    utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed, for we

    can neither employ them in handicraft,12 or agriculture; we

    neither build houses (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land:

    They can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing until they

    arrive at six years old, except where they are of towardly parts,13

    although, I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier,

    during which time, they can however be properly looked upon

    only as probationers,14 as I have been informed by a principal

    gentleman in the county of Cavan,15 who protested to me, that

    he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six,

    even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest

    proficiency in that art.16

    I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or girl, befor